This year the month of March is book-ended by two Jewish holy days: Purim (Feb. 28/March 1) and Passover (Mar. 30 – April 7). The biblical books which explain the origins of both holidays present radically different understanding of the role of human agency in contending with existential threats to the well-being of the Jewish people.
Purim, via the Book of Esther, brings us the story of a highly-assimilated Jewish community that, virtually overnight and as a consequence of forces beyond their control, finds itself facing possible genocide. Salvation does not come about through divine fiat; God is nowhere mentioned in The Book of Esther. The Jews of Persia avoid persecution and potential extermination because Mordechai and Esther summon the will and the chutzpah to confront the power of Haman, in whose thrall the King of Persia is held. Regardless of whether the story of Purim is true–as in “it actually happened”–it rings true because we understand that, historically, Jews have found themselves in similar situations throughout Jewish history. Think “Germany” in the 1930s.
Passover is a Torah-mandated festival which has its roots in agricultural celebrations surrounding the spring wheat harvest and the celebrations attached to the birthing of lambs each spring. But rabbinic authorities subsumed those explanations and overlaid a far more powerful explanation: we celebrate Passover to remind us of God’s miraculous intervention in human affairs when God chose to step into history and, utilizing miracles, brought our ancestors out of “the house of bondage” in order to have them enter into a sacred covenant with the God of Israel at Mount Sinai.
Theologically speaking, Purim and Passover are worlds apart.
In my experience, the Jewish community tends to cluster around the two theological polarities rooted in these two Jewish observances:
1) We live in a world in which we are the agents of our own survival.
2) There is a God who is every bit as prepared to effect our salvation as when our ancestors cried out to God in ancient Egypt.
Where do you fall within that continuum and how does it affect what you do on a daily basis?
A zen koan-like passage in our prayer-book reads:
Pray as if everything depended on God.
Act as if everything depended on you.
There is much in this world that I cannot explain, much that I can never hope to understand. At times, some of it feels “miraculous”. But were I a contestant in some cosmic game-show where Door #1 is marked “PRAY” and Door #2 is marked “ACT”, I would opt for Door #2 every time.
Even in the midst of its revelry, Purim serves to remind me that minority communities are often vulnerable and must, ultimately, rely on their own wits and the support of allies to overcome adversity. In 2018 that message is more significant than ever. Passover arrives a month later to remind me that our world remains filled with “pharaohs” of an astonishing variety who will be toppled not with prayer, but only through tireless and concerted collective action.
I am grateful that the rhythm of the Jewish year compels me to encounter sacred occasions that inspire and evoke contemplative responses. I wish you a joyous Purim and liberating Passover and the benefits that flow from grappling with the ramifications of each!